On the Federal left flank at Kennesaw

The story of the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain usually focuses on the Federal attacks staged at Cheatham’s Hill and Pigeon Hill and their repulse, but on the extreme left of the Federal line, three brigades under General Mortimer Leggett staged a late day push against the Confederate lines held by two brigades of General Winfield Featherston’s division that rivalled combat in the other areas in intensity if not in a lengthy casualty list.
Kurz & Allison print of the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, June 27, 1864

Captain John W.A. Gillespie (1834-1913) was in command of Co. G of the 78th Ohio Volunteer Infantry during this Federal assault on Featherston’s Division and recorded his experiences of the desperate and confused fighting that took place. As part of Colonel Robert K. Scott’s all-Ohio brigade (20th, 32nd, 68th, and 78th Ohio regiments), Gillespie and his men marched through the night of June 26-27th to arrive on the Federal far left in an attempt to draw the Confederates away from the primary point of attack, but that afternoon found themselves pushing in against the Confederate line. Captain Gillespie had command of the two companies of skirmishers from the 78th Ohio, and confused by the heavy underbrush, pushed too close to the Confederate lines and became pinned down by intense Rebel musket fire. 

During the war, Gillespie kept up a regular correspondence with the Zanesville Daily Courier (those letters can be accessed here), but the following letter didn't appear in the newspapers. This account saw publication in the December 24, 1887 issue of the Ohio Soldier, a fantastic source akin to the National Tribune.

In the field near Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia
Tuesday morning, June 28, 1864

          I am indebted to a kind Providence for the privilege of writing to you today for certainly no earthly power could have taken me safely through the dangers of the past 48 hours. Yet why I should have been spared when so many noble boys in blue were sent to their long homes is not for me to know. God knows, and that is enough for me to know.

Colonel Robert K. Scott, 68th OVI
Led the brigade at Kennesaw

          I am, however, very thankful for this opportunity of communicating with you once more and hope my letter will soon reach you as I am sure you will all be anxious to hear from the great battle fought yesterday in which so many lost their lives, or were sent to hospitals to suffer from terrible wounds received while trying to drive the Rebels from their strong line of works on Kennesaw Mountain. Night before last, just after coming in off picket, the regiment with the balance of the brigade was ordered to make a night march for the extreme left of our lines which it did. This was done for the purpose of attracting the attention of as large a force of the Rebels as possible from the extreme left of their lines on which General Joe Hooker was to make a strong and determined effort to get possession of the railroad in the rear of Marietta. We marched and halted and marched all night long and when day began to break in the east, we found ourselves directly in front of the Rebel works and as soon as it was light enough to see how to work the guns, two of our batteries opened their mouths and began talking tin thunder tones to the Johnnies in their works.

          Our regiment supported the battery that opened the ball as I can assure you we hugged mother earth very closely when the Rebel guns began to reply, which they did not do until our gunners had fired 25 or 30 shots. The Rebels opened fire on us with six guns and from that time until 3 o’clock in the afternoon, their shot and shell came shrieking and bursting over our heads and sometimes a dozen pieces of shell would full right among us. One shells struck in front of Co. G and bounced three times through the company without hurting a man in it, and surprising as it may seem, each time it struck the earth it passed over three or four of my men. During all the shelling we received, we had but two men slightly wounded in the entire regiment.

Regimental colors of the 78th Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry

          At 3:30 in the afternoon, the batteries ceased firing and having accomplished all that had been expected of us on that portion of the field, we were ordered back to the old position in front of our camp where we remained but a few minutes being ordered into line again. The fighting on our right at this time was simply terrific, the roar of artillery and musketry being almost deafening while clouds of smoke kept us from seeing any part of the terrible battle and havoc in that portion of the field, yet we had enough to look after, however, in our own immediate front as we soon found out.

          The brigade formed in line of battle, two regiments deep, and moved forward a quarter of a mile and prepared to receive the Rebels should they charge from their rifle pits as we reported that they were going to do. I was put in command of Companies A and G of our regiment and ordered forward as skirmishers and ordered to go as far as possible without being too much exposed. The woods we had to go through was so thick with a small growth of red brush that we could scarcely work our way through it and could not see ten steps ahead of us part of the time during our advance. We soon met the Rebel skirmishers, however, and received their first fire when our boys let loose their dogs of war and drove them from the woods into their works in an open field.
Brigadier General Mortimer Leggett
Division commander at Kennesaw

On the left of our line, the Rebel rifle pits ran down into the woods and being thickly covered with red brush, the left of my company got within five steps of the pits before they were aware of it. The Rebs immediately opened on us from front and flanks and protected by their works, had a big advantage and we enabled to pour a raking fire on my men without us being able to return it with much advantage except to make the Johnnies keep their heads behind the works. My company had advanced further than the balance of the line of skirmishers, but owing to the dense undergrowth, I did not become aware of it until the affair was over. The Rebels had an enfilading fire on my boys for an hour and a half and during that time they tore the earth up all around us and cut the limbs and leaves from the bushes so that they looked as naked as though a furious hailstorm had passed over them. I never heard balls come thicker or faster and I hope I shall never get into such a place again without some chance to return the compliment in full.

Finding we could not advance or retreat, I passed the word along the line for the men to seek the best cover they could and then shoot every Rebel that showed his head above the works, an order which was obeyed to the letters as prisoners afterwards stated that our boys killed and wounded several of their men in the works. One big Confederate jumped on top of the works and yelled out, “Surrender you damned Yanks!” and raised his gun to fire, but before he could pull the trigger, John W. Robinson who was lying on the ground close to me and who had just loaded his Enfield rifle, raised up and fired, killing the fellow instantly. His gun went off in the air and I am sure I don’t exaggerate when I say he jumped full three feet up from the top of the works and fell on the brush outside stone dead.

Colonel [Greenbury F.] Wiles, finding that we had gone further than was intended we should go, ordered us to fall back to the balance of the line, Captain [Gilbert D.] Munson calling in a loud voice for us to do so. Knowing it would be impossible to move as a body in any kind of safety, I had the order to fall back one at a time passed along the line, telling the men next to me that when they all got back to call me and then I would try it. The order was obeyed but in every single instance my boys had a volley fired after them as they ran and dodged among the bushes, but they all got back and when I heard the signal, I jumped to my feet and I am certain I never ran so fast in my life before as I did through the woods yesterday and when I got back, the boys all seemed as pleased to see me as though I had been away from them for a month General [Mortimer] Leggett and Colonel Wiles both said they never expected to see me alive again after finding that we had gone so much farther than was expected of us.
First Lieutenant Cyrus M. Roberts was serving in Co. E of the 78th Ohio but on detached service with the Signal Corps. (Ohio History Connection)

How so many of us escaped wounds or death God only knows. Robert Peacock of my company was mortally wounded, a Minie ball passing through his bowels. He died last night after suffering intense agony. Private Joseph Dixon was shot through the left thigh, the ball cutting the femoral artery. His leg will have to be amputated and I fear he cannot live. Both were splendid soldiers and fine-looking men and fell nobly doing their duty to their country in its hour of peril. I wrote to the poor old mother or Corporal Peacock in Maryland this morning, and my heart aches to think of how she will receive the news of the death of her darling boy. Yet hundreds of mothers will weep tears of sorrow when the details of yesterday’s great battle reach them. I wrote to Private Dixon’s people today also but could give them no consolation beyond the fact that he fell at his post. Company A had four men wounded, one of whom will die. In all, we had one killed and 15 wounded, four or five of whom were only slightly wounded and will soon recover.

The Rebel position in our front is strongly fortified and will be hard to take by direct assault, and if the Rebs are to be gotten out soon, I am of the opinion that it will be done by a flank movement, a trick that Uncle Billy is good at playing. The wound in my shoulder is far from being well yet, and while running through the bushes yesterday I struck against a large limb which opened it up afresh and caused it to bleed copiously. I still had my arm in a sling yesterday morning, but in the excitement of the day I threw the sling away, and now am out of a big new silk handkerchief. Better that, however, than an arm, a leg, or a piece of my scalp.


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